Many organizations think they’re improving customer service by training sales and customer representatives to make small talk — asking how a customer’s day, week, or trip is going. Asking questions and chatting with customers about personal matters is only good customer service if clients WANT to make small talk.
When room service delivers breakfast and the hotel guest is standing in a towel, he’s probably not interested in talking about whether his trip is for business or pleasure and whether or not he’ll have time for fun while he’s in town. Improving customer service will likely require the wait person to get in and out of his room quickly. When a taxi driver talks with you when you want to work, his desire to chat probably isn’t improving customer service.
Sales and customer service representatives can also over communicate about business-related issues. Last weekend I ordered some equipment online. Shortly after placing the order, a customer service representative called me because I’d provided different billing and shipping addresses, and he wanted to be sure that someone wasn’t fraudulently using my card. Focused on improving customer service, he asked me to call back before they’d ship my item, which I needed Monday and paid $32 to have sent via overnight mail.
When I called back, I got voicemail and left a message. Then I spent the day wondering if the guy got my message and if my order would arrive on Monday. Then he left another voicemail saying that one of the items I ordered was out of stock but he thought they might have it in another color. He then called again to tell me that they did indeed have the item in a different color and asked me to call back. When I called back, I was told that my order had already shipped. Three unnecessary phone calls on a Saturday is not improving customer service.
You may be thinking this situation is an anomaly, but it happened to me again a few days later. I returned a pair of pants I bought online. I wrote a letter explaining for what item I wanted to exchange the pants. A customer service representative called to ask if I was sure about what I wanted and asked me to call back. When I returned the call, I was told that my order had already shipped.
I suspect companies think they’re improving customer service by asking how a customer’s day is going and by calling customers personally when questions arise. Perhaps I’m too busy, but having to call a vendor to tell them that I meant to order what I ordered and I really do have a separate billing and mailing address is not improving customer service. It’s time consuming and annoying.
I’m aware my preferences are not consistent with all buyers, and many customers appreciate calls from vendors and making small talk with wait staff, taxi drivers, and other service providers. But you won’t know what your customers want if you don’t ask them. Consider asking customers about their preferences when they buy something.
Here are a couple of questions you could ask, with the goal of improving customer service:
If we need to contact you, what method is best? Phone, email, or text message?
Taxi and Uber drivers, massage therapists, dentists, etc. ask, “Would you like a silent ride/visit?”
What’s your definition of good customer service? Check all that apply.
- Get it done fast and right the first time.
- Get to know me. I’m happy to chat.
- Get it done right and ask all the questions you’d like.
- I’ll sacrifice pleasantries for speed.
Our customers don’t necessarily share our definition of good customer service. Small talk may suit some customers, while it alienates others. Read your customers’ body language and listen to their tone of voice. Do they look and sound like they want to chat with you? Do they happily provide you with detailed answers to small-talk related questions, or do they provide short answers and appear impatient? Listen, watch, and adjust your behavior accordingly. Or preferably, ask what customers are expecting from you when they buy. Ask more. Assume less.
You’re more likely to get an email or text message with emojis at work than a phone call or an in-person visit. Email, text messages, and instant messenger have become the primary modes of communication in most workplaces. And as we know, it’s difficult to manage tone of voice in written communication. Not wanting to sound angry or demanding, we add emoticons at work so the reader doesn’t misinterpret our message.
I believe email and text messages are overused. But I know most people won’t pick up the phone as often as they could or should. So instead of recommending that you pick up the phone more frequently, I’ll suggest you give people the benefit of the doubt, and make it a general rule not to take things personally.
If you’ve seen me teach how to give feedback or have read How to Say Anything to Anyone, you know I believe that one of the keys to being able to tell the truth is to ask for and gain permission to do so. What would happen if everyone in your workplace assumed that every email had a positive tone and that if something is a problem or a big deal, people will talk to you live? What if you made a deal that people won’t take emails or text messages personally?
When I teach feedback, I tell people not to give feedback via email and to instead talk with people. And we can’t always do that. Sometimes we need email to ensure feedback is timely. But email recipients are often hurt by the implied tone of an email or the brevity of a text message. Intended meanings are often misconstrued, feelings are hurt, and relationships are damaged, hence why we add emoticons at work.
There is a lot written on the value of emoticons at work and how we need to embrace the change in the way we communicate. I just wish we didn’t need emoticons at work. I wish, instead, we thought, “I trust you and assume good. I know that if you’re annoyed with me, you’ll tell me, because we’ve built a relationship in which we deal with challenges overtly, as they happen.” And perhaps I’m living on another planet – the planet of utopic candor. But the aforementioned are my goals. It’s why I do the work I do at Candid Culture. I envision workplaces in which we assume good and ask questions if we don’t. Do you?
At the end of presentations, attendees often approach me and say something like, “People tell me my communication style is really direct and that it can be off putting. I don’t know what to do about this.” Or they say, “People say I’m really quiet and hard to read. They have a difficult time getting to know me.”
If you’ve been given the same feedback repeatedly, or know you create a first impression that may be challenging to others, set expectations and tell people about your communication style when you begin working with them. Don’t wait until they feel offended, confused, or frustrated. Simply tell people when you meet them, “I’ve been told that I’m too direct and how I provide feedback can be off putting. Anything I say is to be helpful. If I ever offend you or provide too much information, I hope you’ll tell me.” Or you could say something like, “I’m told that I’m quiet and it’s hard to get to know me. I’m more open than I may appear. If you want to know anything about me, feel free to ask.”
People will make decisions about and judge you. There is nothing you can do about this. But you can practice what I call, ‘get there first.’ Set people’s expectations about your communication style and what you’re like to work with, and then ask people to speak freely when they aren’t getting something they need.
The root of frustration and upset is violated expectations. People may not be aware of their expectations of you or be able to articulate them, but if they didn’t have certain expectations, they wouldn’t be upset when you acted differently than how they (possibly unconsciously) expected.
I’m a proponent of anticipating challenges and talking about them before problems arise. If you know something about your behavior is off putting to others, why not be upfront about it.
When people interview to work for me, I set clear expectations about my communication style and what I’m like to work with. I tell them all the things I think they’ll like about working for me and all the things I suspect they won’t. I tell them the feedback I’ve received from past employees and things I’m working alter. People often nod their heads and say, “no problem,” which, of course, may not be true. They won’t know how my style will impact them until they begin working with me. But when I do the things I warned them would likely be annoying, we can more easily talk about those behaviors, than if I had said nothing.
Talk about your communication style when projects and relationships begin. Replace judgment and damaged relationships with dialogue.
Most of what comes through our phones is probably not all that compelling – emails we don’t really want to read, advertisements for things we won’t buy, and social media updates we don’t really care about. And yet those little devices are so seductive. It’s hard not to check your email, texts, and social media updates constantly. Being so connected electronically and thus so continuously distracted has its benefits but it also has real costs.
Most of you know I have a small child and I’m committed to being a present and involved mom. I spend a lot of time with my son. But the best times are when I leave my phone behind. Without my phone I’m fully present with him, in the moment, enjoying him. When I have my phone, I’m distracted, often stressed, and typically torn. Can’t I read this email and reply quickly? What’s the harm? It will only take a second.
And each time I take a minute to read my email, I’m gone. I’m focused on my phone. And then I feel guilty and sad for not being as engaged as I want to be. Then I recommit to being fully present. And then read my email again. It’s a vicious cycle.
There is a huge cost to being distracted most of the time. Our relationships suffer. Car fatalities have increased tenfold. People are consistently tired.
Every productivity expert will tell you to check your messages three times a day, respond, and to not be constantly reading email. It’s fantastic advice. And I suspect no one, including productivity experts, follows it. It’s just too hard. We’re lured by our phones, tablets and laptops. Not checking them regularly makes us antsy, uncomfortable, and nervous.
What would happen if we set defined periods of time for each thing we did? I.e., Spend from 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm with your children. At 4:00 p.m., check your phone. Take the weekend off and check your messages at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. Work on a project without interruption from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. I suspect we’d get way more done and feel less stressed. But we have to give ourselves permission to put the phone away.
Here are three ways to be more focused and productive, and hopefully, happy:
1. Schedule work and personal activities for realistic, defined periods of time, and stick to them.
2. Agree on no cell phones or other electronics during personal meals and outings. I like the game people are playing in restaurants by putting cell phones face down in a pile on the table. The first person who touches their cell phone pays the entire bill.
3. Agree on no cell phones during group or one-on-one meetings. Your meetings will be shorter, easier to manage, and more productive. Meeting attendees are dying to tell their peers to put away their phones. Strong facilitators who set and hold to this expectation earn others’ respect and get more done.
In a nut shell, give yourself permission to focus. Do one thing at a time for a short period of time. Allow similar chunks of time to read and reply to messages and read Facebook updates you don’t care about. Then put the phone down and walk away. Your family and friends miss you.
Want to improve your relationships? Read How to Say Anything to Anyone.
Chances are, at some point in your career, you’ve worked with someone you wished would go away. Maybe the person repeatedly threw you under the bus, took credit for your work, or didn’t keep his commitments. And at some point, you wrote the person off, and have been merely tolerating him ever since.
Damaged relationships can be repaired, if you’re willing to do some work.
The first step in repairing a damaged relationship is to decide that you really want to do so. Managing conflict in the workplace isn’t easy. It will take effort and will likely be uncomfortable. So before you take action, decide if you really want to work on the relationship.
How to know if you should even try resolving conflict in the workplace: Ask yourself how much you need the relationship. This probably sounds political, and it is. If you work on projects together, need to give or receive information, or have to work together regularly, then it’s likely worth working on the relationship. If you don’t need to work together regularly, then perhaps don’t work on the relationship.
If you decide to attempt to strengthen a relationship, plan what you’re going to say. Never trust the first thing that comes out of your mouth during a difficult conversation.
Step one for resolving conflict in the workplace: Like any feedback conversation, start with the end in mind. Consider what you want to have happen as a result of the conversation.
Step two for resolving conflict in the workplace: Plan what you’re going to say by taking notes and practicing out loud. What you say in your head is usually not what comes out of your mouth.
Step three for resolving conflict in the workplace: Ask the person for time on his calendar. People don’t like surprises. You’ll have a better outcome if the person has blocked time to talk with you. Have the conversation in-person whenever possible. If you can’t speak in-person, talk on the phone. Do not attempt to fix your relationship via email. 1. Email is wimpy. 2. It will not work.
Tell the person, “Our relationship is strained. I don’t think I’m saying anything we’re not both aware of. I’d really like a good working relationship. Would you be willing to have coffee or lunch with me, and we can talk about what has happened and perhaps start in a new way?”
Step four for resolving conflict in the workplace: Ask for a meeting to work on the relationship up to three times. If, after the third time, the person hasn’t made time, stop asking. You can’t work with someone who won’t work with you. If the person doesn’t make time to meet, be polite, professional, and inclusive, but stop trying to nurture the relationship. Inclusive means: cc’ing him on necessary emails, inviting him to appropriate meetings, and providing necessary data.
Step five for resolving conflict in the workplace: If the person makes time to meet, speak candidly, be yourself, and be vulnerable. I don’t mean set yourself up to be killed. I do mean be authentic.
How to Manage Difficult Conversations:
- Tell the person what you want.
- Ask for feedback about how you’ve damaged the relationship.
- Listen to what you hear, and resist the urge to defend yourself.
- Ask for permission to tell him how he’s damaged the relationship.
- Give small amounts of feedback, with a few specific examples.
- Make agreements of what each of you will do differently in the future.
- Thank the person for the conversation and schedule another meeting.
Step six for resolving conflict in the workplace: Build in follow-up. Most people have one conversation and expect things to be fixed, forever. Relationships don’t work that way. Agree to meet monthly, for the first few months, until you’ve rebuilt trust and learned how to communicate and work together. During the monthly meetings, give each other permission to give candid feedback about how you’re working together. I call these Relationship Inventory Meetings™.
During monthly Relationship Inventory Meetings™ ask:
- What’s working about how we work together?
- What’s not working?
- What working agreements did we keep?
- What working agreements did we break?
- Which working agreements are helpful?
- What working agreements need to change?
You might be thinking, “I don’t like this person. I don’t want to work with him. And I definitely don’t want to have these uncomfortable conversations.”
- If the nature of your relationship is impacting your ability to do your job, your professional reputation, or your happiness, all of those consequences are far worse and more long-lasting than any conversation will be.
- The conversations won’t be as bad as you think. No one will tell you anything you can’t handle, because for the most part, they’re afraid of your reaction and they know they’ll be next.
Conflict in the workplace and damaged relationships keep people up at night, reduce job satisfaction, and often motivate people to leave jobs. If you’re experiencing any of these things, all of them are worse than any conversation will be. The anticipation of the conversation is far worse than the conversation itself.
- Decide if you want to strengthen the relationship.
- Plan the conversation.
- Ask for time to meet.
- Have the conversation. Speak honestly, but responsibly.
- Plan to have another conversation before ending this conversation.
- Congratulate yourself for being courageous and picking happiness over anxiety and frustration. Suffering is optional.
Last week I had some really, really terrible moments. Our office WIFI went out during a webinar. Not even the phone worked. I missed the deadline to speak at a conference that’s almost in my backyard and an event that I really want to participate in, I double booked myself and had to cancel a few appointments, and I hit my son’s teacher’s car, leaving her side mirror dangling like a Christmas tree ornament.
Some days are going to be terrible. On those terrible days, it’s so easy to feel like we’re screwing things up and that we are indeed a screw up. Instead, give yourself a break. The thing to know and remember, in the moment, is that you’re not terrible. You’re a human being, doing the best you can.
Here is a list of ways to give yourself a break and as a result, do your best work. I’ll admit, I’m working on doing these things too. Every day I’m annoyed that I’m not perfect. I want to be a combination of Mary Poppins, Super Woman, and Kate Middleton, but I’m not. I’m a business owner, working mom, who hasn’t seen the inside of a gym since my son was born, who recommits to better self-care every day, only to break that commitment in eleven different ways by 10:00 am.
Here are Nine Way to Give Yourself a Break:
- Set realistic deadlines so you’re not constantly running against time and overestimate how long everything will take to do. Set yourself up to win.
- Before agreeing to a new commitment, ask yourself, “Do I really want to do this?” Try not to commit yourself to things you know, at your core, you don’t want to do. You’ll just resent that commitment when it rolls around and aren’t likely to do your best work.
- Turn off the alerts on your phone and laptop when you’re working. You’ll be more focused and get more work done.
- Ask for help. If there is someone who can help with a project (and it won’t make you look bad) let them.
- Go to bed earlier than you think you need to and leave your phone in the kitchen.
- Take a day off. Your company offers vacation time for a reason. People do better work when they take time to relax and rejuvenate.
- Take time for yourself, even if it’s 30 minutes.
- Drink more water and make sure you eat breakfast and lunch. I’m starting to sound like your mom.
- Say “thank you” more and “I’m sorry” less. “Thank you for letting me know” is more empowering than “I’m sorry I missed that.” I’m guilty of apologizing for everything, so much so that one of my employees and I play a game that whoever says she’s sorry first has to throw a dollar in a communal collection pot. Whatever you put attention on will improve.
Some of these things are business focused, some are personal. You bring yourself – your whole self – to work. It’s why you’re good at what you do. People want to work with real people. And real people over commit, make mistakes, and spend too much time on Facebook at 11:30 pm. Give yourself a break.
Giving feedback upwards is hard. Giving feedback downward is hard. Giving feedback to peers can be the hardest of all. We work closely with our peers. They’re often our friends. And still, we need to be able to speak freely when our coworkers violate our expectations.
The key to being able to give peers feedback (to give anyone feedback) is to agree that doing so is not only acceptable but expected. Before agreeing to give and receive feedback, peers need to set clear expectations of how they’ll work together and treat each other.
Telling people how you want them to behave is always easier than correcting a behavior. But it often just doesn’t occur to us to tell our peers what we want and need from them. We’re busy. They’re busy. And don’t they already know what courteous workplace behavior looks like? Return all emails within a day or two, keep your workspace quiet so others can focus, turn off your personal cell phone alerts at work, take personal calls away from your desk, and don’t wear anything scented at work. Aren’t all of these behaviors fairly obvious? Do I really need to people these are my expectations? Uh….yes, you do.
If you don’t want employees dumping these challenges at their managers’ doors, help employees talk to each other.
Here are seven steps to help people who work closely together set expectations and hold each other accountable:
- Schedule a meeting during which people working together can discuss the working environment they need to be satisfied and productive. Then facilitate a discussion during which the group creates 5 – 7 behavior guidelines each person agrees to follow.
- Post the list of agreed-upon behaviors on a poster that is large enough to be read from any place in the work environment, or virtually. Leave the guidelines posted indefinitely.
- Give each person in the group permission to talk to individuals who violate the guidelines. This is very, very important. For the most part, employees won’t tell a peer s/he is missing deadlines, gossiping, talking too loudly, has too many visitors at her desk, listens to music or videos without headphones, or is distracted with personal calls/texts. People will suffer in silence and avoid the offender rather than speak up about the behaviors that frustrate them.
Ask the group to grant each other permission to speak up when guidelines are violated. Giving each other permission to speak up will make future conversations possible – difficult but possible. Without permission and these agreed-upon behaviors in place, people will suffer in silence or talk about each other, not to each other.
- Ask everyone in the work group to take feedback graciously, responding with “thank you for telling me,” rather than with defensiveness.
- Two weeks after making the list of guidelines, get the group together to review the list and make any necessary changes to it. Discuss behaviors that were omitted, aren’t realistic, and are realistic but aren’t being followed.
- Then follow up by facilitating a monthly conversation during which group members give honest feedback about which guidelines are being followed and which are not, and problem solve as a group. These conversations aren’t a chance to embarrass or call people out in front of a large group. If one person is violating a guideline, that conversation should happen individually. Group conversations keep the lines of communication open – which is essential to making working with others work.
- You will need a strong facilitator for the group discussions. The facilitator must tease out people’s thoughts, while making sure no one gets blasted in front of the group. Don’t let concerns, that you know exist, be brushed under the rug. Group members must openly and regularly discuss what is and isn’t working about their work environment, or frustrations will build, and unhappiness and dissension will ensue.
It’s not too late to put these practices in place, even with a group that has been working together for a long time. Just schedule the conversation and explain why you’re having it. People will be relieved and grateful.
Tis’ the season to over commit.
It’s the start of a new year, when many of us begin thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. We vow to lose 20 pounds, save 10% of our income, get promoted at work, take an exotic vacation, be a better partner, etc. etc. Also known as “how to set yourself up to fail” in five easy steps. The reality is, we might do one or two of those things, if that.
Why not set yourself up to win instead? Instead of setting huge goals that are unlikely to happen, why not set more realistic goals that you can and will likely do?
If you manage people, perhaps you’re thinking about how you can be a better manager in 2019. Or you may be thinking about how you can accelerate your career. You may decide to meet with your employees more frequently, or ask your boss for more feedback, or ask for new and different work. You may think that doing these things will help you strengthen your relationships with your employees and your reputation, and advance your career. Doing any of these things might help you strengthen your business relationships and help you get ahead. But they might not, if those things are not important to your employees, your boss and/or your organization.
In 2019, put energy and resources into the things that truly matter to the people you work with, rather than the things you think they think are important. And the only way to know what the people around you really want and need, is to ask them. Don’t assume you know what is important to your boss, direct reports and coworkers, ask them. Ask more. Assume less.
There are countless examples of managers who went to great lengths to make their employees happy. They gave bonuses, cool projects, and time off. And their employees quit anyway. Or, trying to make a manager happy, employees stayed late, beat deadlines, and took on additional work, and still got a mediocre review. Rather than doing what you think others want, ask them!
How about this for a New Year’s resolution — ask your boss, direct reports and key customers these questions as you begin the New Year:
- What’s the most important work I did in the past 12 months?
- What’s an area, in 2018, I exceeded your expectations?
- How did I let you down?
- If I could do one thing differently this year that would make the biggest difference for you and/or the organization, what would it be?
- Where do you think I should focus my energy in 2019?
It may be intimidating to ask for feedback from your peers and direct reports. But you won’t know what to do more, better, or differently if you don’t ask.
The right answer to feedback is always “thank you,” regardless of what you really want to say. Saying “thank you” makes you a safe person to whom to tell the truth and makes it more likely you’ll get more information in the future. So bite your tongue and respond to all feedback with, “Thank you for telling me that. I’m going to think about what you’ve said and may come back to you to discuss further.” They’ll be relieved, and you’ll strengthen your professional image.
It’s easy to assume what others want and are expecting from us. The problem is, we’re not always correct. Thus we expend energy doing things that others don’t find valuable or important, otherwise known as wasting time and resources.
Your time and budget dollars are valuable. Use your time and money for things that others actually want, versus what you think they want. In 2019, dial it back. Make realistic, attainable goals that are aligned with what the people around want and need. And in return, you too will get what you want and need.
Most of us grapple with whether or not we should give feedback when someone else does or says something frustrating.
Here are a few criteria to help you decide whether or not you should give feedback or say nothing:
- Do you have a relationship with the person? Do you know each other well enough to share your opinion? Aka, have you earned the right?
- Has the other person requested your opinion? Unsolicited feedback often goes on deaf ears.
- If the other person has not requested your opinion, does he appear open to hearing feedback?
- Are you trying to make a difference for the other person or just make him look or feel badly?
- Do you want to strengthen the relationship?
Before you give feedback, do something I call, ‘check your motives at the door.’ If your motives are pure – you want to strengthen the person or the relationship, and you have a good enough relationship that you’ve earned the right to speak up — then do it.
People are more open to feedback when they trust our motives. If we have a good relationship with the person and he knows we’re speaking up to make a difference for him or for the relationship, you’ll be able to say way more than if your motives are questionable – aka you want to be right.
Saying no is hard. We don’t want to disappoint or let people down. And yet, you can’t say yes to everything. You can say no and still sound like a responsible, easy-to-work-with, accommodating professional.
Here are four techniques for how to say no:
Thank the person for asking. “Thank you for asking me.”
1. Saying “thank you” acknowledges the other person and buys you time to think about his request.
2. Tell the person you need some time to think about his request. Ask, “Can I have a few days to think about it? I’ll get back to you by Friday.”
You don’t need to reply in the moment. I often regret things I agree to without thinking through the request thoroughly.
3. Consider what you really want and are willing to do. It’s much worse to over commit and under deliver than to simply say no or renegotiate requests.
4. Get back to the person in a timely way (when you said you would) and tell him what you’re willing to do.
How to Say No Option One: Simply say no.
Example: “I really appreciate you asking me to write the proposal for the __________ RFP. I’m not able to do that. Can I recommend someone else who has the expertise and will do a great job?”
Don’t give a bunch of reasons for saying no. People aren’t interested in why we can or can’t do something. They just want to know if we will do it.
How to Say No Option Two: Agree and negotiate the time frame.
Example: “I’d be happy to do that. I can’t do it before the last week of the month. Would that work for you?” If the answer is no, negotiate further. Ask, “When do you really need it? I can certainly do pieces by then, but not the whole thing. Given that I can’t meet your timeline, who else can work on this in tandem or instead of me?”
How to Say No Option Three: Say no to the request but say what you can do.
Example: “I can’t do _______. But I can do ________. How would that work?”
A review of how to say no:
- Acknowledge the request by getting back to the requestor within 24 hours.
- Give yourself time to think about and respond to requests.
- Negotiate requests to your and the requestor’s satisfaction.
- Agree on what you can and are willing to do.
- Keep your commitments.
Saying no is always hard. But it’s always better to say no than to ignore requests, or to say yes and do nothing.